Wiring the web (redux)

Information technologists often recite David Wheeler’s famous aphorism:

Any problem in computer science can be solved with another layer of indirection.

Often, though, they omit the corollary:

But that usually will create another problem.

Those problems used to plague only IT folk. But now we’re all involved. Effective social information management is quite severely constrained by the fact that regular folks are not (yet) taught the basics of computational thinking.

For example, when I explain my community calendar project to prospective contributors, they invariably assume that I’m asking them to enter their data into my database. It’s quite hard to convey: that the site isn’t a database of events, only a coordinator of event feeds; that I’m only asking them to create feeds and give me pointers to their feeds; that this arrangement empowers them to control their information and materialize it in contexts other than the one I’m creating.

I’m having some success explaining this model, but it’s slow going. People don’t take naturally to the indirection and abstraction.

Here’s another example. I know various folks who are trying to create online resource directories of one kind or another. I’ve identified a pattern, which I call collaborative list curation, that is an ideal way to solve this problem. Consider this directory of blogs for the Monadnock region. It looks like any other such directory, but it’s made differently. Again, there is no explicit database. Entries come from the del.icio.us tag delicious.com/judell/monadnockblog — a personal collection whose items are, currently, the same as those in the global collection delicious.com/tag/monadnockblog.

I’m subscribed to the global collection at feeds.delicious.com/v2/rss/tag/monadnockblog which means I can monitor it for new items, vet them, and transfer those I want to include to my personal collection. If I wanted to delegate that editorial control, I would point my directory-making service at the del.icio.us account of a trusted associate and have it camp on that account’s monadnockblog tag instead of (or in addition to) my own.

Of course this is all way too indirect for any normal person to grok, which is why nothing has been added to the global collection. Even many IT-savvy folks, I’m finding, don’t take naturally to this model.

That said, I’m finding that once I can get people to walk through one of these experiences, and see the connection — OK, I do this over here, and that happens over there, and it can also happen somewhere else, and I’m in control — the light bulb does go on.

Now we need to take forward-thinking evangelists like me out of the loop, and get people to discover for themselves how to wire the web. If Live Clipboard didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Oh wait. It doesn’t, and we do.

14 Comments

  1. > not a publicly available resource

    I know. It used to be, though:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20060807225324/http://rayozzie.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!FB3017FBB9B2E142!285.entry

    Key quote:

    “Where’s the user model that would enable a user to copy and paste structured information from one website to another?

    Where’s the user model that would enable a user to copy and paste structured information from a website to an application running on a PC or other kind of device, or vice-versa?

    And finally, where’s the user model that would enable a user to “wire the web”, by enabling publish-and-subscribe scenarios web-to-web, or web-to-PC?”

  2. cool, thanks.

    Good luck with your community calendar efforts by the way. I’m actively trying to encourage the same where I live. It annoys me no end that I have to go to my football(i.e. soccer) team’s website to see when their next game is. Why don’t they publish the fixtures as a subscribable calendar?

    regards
    Jamie

  3. “Why don’t they publish the fixtures as a subscribable calendar?”

    Partly because, as Ray Ozzie aptly noted in that excerpt above, there is no user-grokkable model for pub/sub.

  4. Nice, man, nice!
    I’m glad to find people that thinks like me: as simple as I can

    When I see how much lines of code has only the linux kernel I put the hair-raising

    We spend 50 of the human story putting layers of problems (instead of indirection) to computer sciences

    It’s time to change our point of view

    I’m sorry but my work in this direction is explained in spanish (my language) but perhaps you could try it with google translator (there’s a link in my page for your convenience)

    I work with something I call Yanged (there’s a category in my weblog)

    I put your rss file to my lifearea, thanks!

  5. I keep puzzling whether that user-grokkable model will be an HCI affordance of some kind or, as I strongly suspect, a cultural urgency or cultural affordance. Maybe we don’t seem to have a compelling or grokkable pub/sub model because the idea and practice of pub/sub is beyond most people’s idea of personal agency or potency. That’s a shame, given that we’re at least nominally living in a democracy! But it’s also an opportunity for a broad platform of education in the area of personal agency.

  6. “Maybe we don’t seem to have a compelling or grokkable pub/sub model because the idea and practice of pub/sub is beyond most people’s idea of personal agency or potency.”

    I do think that’s an important part of it.
    Action-at-a-distance is unexpected. “I do this, here, and that happens over there?”

    “But it’s also an opportunity for a broad platform of education in the area of personal agency.”

    Absolutely agree that’s one leg of the stool. The second is, indeed, a way of giving people an experience they can grok and then generalize from. I think Facebook comes closest to giving the experience — my actions have observable ripple effects in the network — but FB does not, yet, provide the intellectual or human/computer tools to generalize from that.

    The third leg of the stool is…I dunno. Any takers?

  7. “regular folks are not (yet) taught the basics of computational thinking” How can we expect regular users to understand concepts that are difficult even for the IT architects. Otherwise we wouldn’t see “ESBs” anymore — they would be coordinating event feeds instead…

  8. Excellent writing Jon.

    I enjoyed the famous aphorism:

    “Any problem in computer science can be solved with another layer of indirection.”

    Keep up the great work.

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